Tough Passages #17: An Extra Mile of Evil (Matthew 5:39-41)

In “Tough Passages,” we’re looking at the difficult verses in the Bible that are often brought up by secular people as reasons the Bible doesn’t make sense, and discovering how they actually reveal the character, love, and glory of God in a beautiful way.  Last time, we looked at how important sin really is.  It’s been a couple of months, so we’re going above and beyond with two verses about…well, going above and beyond.

The Verses

But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

Matthew 5:39-41, ESV

The Secular Response

Passages like these make it seem like God didn’t honestly grant his followers free will and in reality wants to turn them into obedient and mindless robots who can’t think for themselves.

Ivana Wynn, ranker.com

Our Reply

These two verses are separated in the secular list we’re looking at, but in the Bible they are not only together, they’re part of a larger context where Jesus is turning the Jews’ whole understanding of the Law on its head. The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps His most well-known sermon, and we actually talked about an earlier part of it way back in Tough Passages #3.

Setting the Record Straight

The whole sermon is about correcting misconceptions that the people of God had come up with since the Law was given to them in the Old Testament; little rules that had popped up or misunderstandings due to sinful people trying to warp the word of God to their own purposes.

Jesus begins by turning the order of the world on its head; the people who realize they have nothing to offer God are the ones to whom He has given the Kingdom of Heaven.
This idea of a world centered on God’s glory, not man’s work, is built up throughout the sermon; Jesus insists that God’s glory is paramount and that He, not us, is the goal of our obedience.

And then, in verse 21, Jesus first says “You have heard that it was said…,” a repeated line throughout the sermon. This is a little bit of shorthand; it means that the thing he’s about to say is something that the Jewish people misunderstand. And two of those things are what we’re talking about today.

An eye for a tooth for a cheek

Back in Leviticus 20, God’s command to the Israelites was “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth;” a law which was meant to establish fair sentencing among a nation that had previously been under the rule of a potentially capricious monarchy. But it seems that some people in that time had taken that command as a license or even imperative to seek revenge against people who wronged them, or to retaliate for an insult (which is what a slap on the cheek was) or imagined slight.

Jesus was unjustly tortured and killed to save us from a death we rightly deserved! Why would we be offended by a little insult?

So Jesus set the record straight: the man and woman of God should not seek revenge, or escalate an insult into a brawl. His people were to be characterized by peace and justice, not violent outbursts; we are to show our enemies love, not return their evil for more evil. Far from a command to accept abuse, Jesus says we should not sink to the level of an insult. We are a part of the family of God, and our older brother Jesus was unjustly tortured and killed to save us from a death we rightly deserved! Why would we be offended by a little insult?

Miles of Cloaks

The legal status of the coat and the cloak are, similarly, a case of the Christian having bigger fish to fry. If the judge rules against the Christian, we are to show by our actions that, again, our possessions don’t really matter as much as the peace and justice which Christ bought for us on the Cross. As Matthew Henry said in his classic commentary,

The sum of all is, that Christians must not be litigious; small injuries must be submitted to, and no notice taken of them; and if the injury be such as requires us to seek reparation, it must be for a good end, and without thought of revenge: though we must not invite injuries, yet we must meet them cheerfully in the way of duty, and make the best of them. If any say, Flesh and blood cannot pass by such an affront, let them remember, that flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Mindless robots?

So does this remove our ability or responsibility to think for ourselves? Of course not. We’re given this law, in fact, to increase our capability to think for ourselves! Rather than being bound by our rage or our selfishness, God (through His Son) frees us up to forgive others rather than seek a hollow revenge that will never satisfy.

The Source of Turning the Other Cheek

And because Jesus endured the insults and torture of the Cross; because He had his cloak taken and was forced to walk with a cross on His back, to win for us salvation, adoption, and the right to pursue peace.

• • •

Our final installment of Tough Passages, Season 1 is next month! We’ll be tackling the idea of how much Jesus is really worth.

Thanks for reading Redeeming Culture; we hope you stick with us. If this isn’t a satisfying answer to you, please comment below. I’d love to talk it out.

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  1. Pingback: Tough Passages, Appendix C: No Offense, None Taken | Redeeming Culture

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